Answer: Whoa, talk about getting your wires crossed! It sounds as if there was a completely preventable breakdown in communication between you and your travel agent.
Your agent should have told you which airline you were flying to South Africa on. But you should have contacted the agency before confirming the flight with your airline. The reason you deal with a trusted intermediary to book your airline tickets is that they provide an extra service. An agent can confirm your flights, make a change to your reservation, answer any questions about your itinerary and fix a flight if there’s a problem.
Your agent would have been on the hook to buy you a new ticket if somehow American Airlines wasn’t paid for the ticket on time.
Stepping in and “fixing” it without first consulting with your agent made the problem worse. Given the difficult situation you were in at the time, I can’t blame you for just paying for the ticket.
But the real problem was American Airlines. You asked it to cancel all of your tickets, but it only processed one itinerary. There are ways of verifying a cancellation. Companies will often offer a cancellation number or some other verification that the tickets have been refunded, such as an email. When you didn’t get a confirmation from American, you should have called back.
Actually, you should have asked your agent to handle the cancellation. That’s what you’re paying them for, after all.
Most airlines will refund a ticket if you call within 24 hours to cancel, but after that, they’ll offer a credit minus a change fee, which can only be used by the ticketed passenger.
Given your personal circumstances and the problems with your travel agency, I thought American should take another look at your case. It did and it decided to make an exception to its policy. It issued new flight vouchers that could be used by anyone and are valid for a year from the date of their issue. You’ll still have to pay the cancellation fee, but you’ll no longer have to use the tickets for your children.